The space shuttle Challenger and its eight crew members landed yesterday at California's Edwards Air Force Base where the crew tested for the first time a nose-wheel steering gear built to ease the strain on the main landing gear.
"The bird looks like it's in good shape," Jesse W. Moore, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, said at a post-landing news conference. "The brakes looked good coming in and we are very, very pleased with the results of the nose-wheel steering test."
Commander Henry W. Hartsfield and Pilot Steven Nagel brought Challenger down out of hazy skies to a smooth touchdown on the dried-out lake bed at 9:44 a.m. PST. The ship trailed a cloud of dust as it sped down the runway at 200 miles an hour.
Hartsfield tested a new steering mechanism that was built to reduce the tire and brake damage that has marred several shuttle landings and kept the spaceliner from landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center since last April when both main landing gears collapsed and one tire was blown out.
The test called for Hartsfield to engage the new steering mechanism seconds after the nose wheel touched down on the runway so he could steer Challenger 20 feet off the centerline and then bring it back again.
The results were not evident to observers yesterday but there was no question that Hartsfield ended up on the centerline of the runway. One more successful test later this month will clear the way for the shuttle to resume landing at Cape Canaveral in December.
Chartered by West Germany for $64 million, the 22nd shuttle flight was hailed as "near perfect" by West German scientists, who directed 76 experiments handled by two West Germans, a Dutchman and two Americans inside the European-built Spacelab in Challenger's cargo bay.
A scientist at the West German control center outside Munich said: "It was an extraordinary achievement and an extraordinary performance."